The Internet has become more than a platform for collective response. This past week, the official communiqué released by the summit of the Gang of Eight industrial nations, or G8, hailed the importance of the Internet to the world’s citizens in the 21st century ahead:
The Internet has become the public arena for our time, a lever of economic development and an instrument for political liberty and emancipation. Freedom of opinion, expression, information, assembly and association must be safeguarded on the Internet as elsewhere. Arbitrary or indiscriminate censorship or restrictions on access to the Internet are inconsistent with States’ international obligations and are clearly unacceptable. Furthermore, they impede economic and social growth.
The communiqué also recognized the role of the inaugural eG8 Forum held in Paris, prior to the summit, in exploring these issues. The eG8 showed that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders. Coming on a week when Iran vowed to unplug the Internet,, thereby disconnecting Iranian citizens from this platform, the G8 leaders holding up those principles was both timely and notable.
As Syria cracks down on social media, whether we can hear the global voices of one another is a serious question, as is whether people living under autocratic governments can access the Internet safely or at all.
The global network, as many of the world’s citizens know it today, however, was never a sure outcome, nor a permanent one. Some two decades ago, people were logging onto services like Prodigy or Compuserve, not the World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee enabled from his computer in Switzerland.
The communiqué identified the principles that have led to the continued growth of the Internet as we know it:
The openness, transparency and freedom of the Internet have been key to its development and success. These principles, together with those of non-discrimination and fair competition, must continue to be an essential force behind its development.
Author Don Tapscott, who has written and spoken extensively about the Internet’s impact on business and society, had this to say about the G8 and the Internet: “Don’t mess with a good thing.”
The appropriate debate is not between [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s oppressive approach as opposed to no regulation whatsoever. Obviously the rule of rule should prevail in cyberspace just as it does in the bricks-and-mortar world.
But the Internet is changing every institution in society. It enables new approaches to innovation, requiring new thinking about patents and copyright. It renders old institutions naked, requiring more transparency on the part of governments and corporations. It disrupts old models of learning and pedagogy demanding a change in relationship between students and teachers in the learning process. It offers new models of democracy based on a culture of public discourse, in turn compelling old style politicians to engage their citizens. It turns intellectual property into bits, that don’t know the old rules that governed atoms of how to behave. It drops the transaction costs of dissent, subjecting dictators and tyrants to the power of mass participation. It breaks down national boundaries and requiring a rethinking of how peoples everywhere can cooperate to solve global problems. And for the first time in history children are an authority on the most important innovation changing every institution in society.
Predictably, old style political leaders comfortable with the industrial age are dazed and confused, and many feel threatened. A new communications medium is causing disruption, dislocation and uncertainty. And leaders of old paradigms with vested interests fear what they do not understand, and react with coolness or even hostility. Rather than innovating and opening up they often hunker down, trying to strengthen old outdated rules and approaches.
Along similar lines, following are four video interviews that go deeper into what’s at stake and why the eG8 mattered.
Zimmerman on French Internet freedom
Defending innovation and net neutrality at the eG8 meant speaking openly about the risks to the Internet as we know them. When it comes to the Internet, France has followed its own path in making policies, particularly with respect to intellectual property.
As Nancy Scola reported at techPresident, at the eG8, civil society groups restaked their claim to the Net. Looking for more answers, I spoke with Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder and spokesperson for citizen advocacy group LaQuadrature du Net. For many Internet users, this interview should be by turns illuminating and provocative. “Everywhere you look, you see governments attacking the Internet,” said Zimmerman.
Benkler on what’s at stake
“The primary reason we need to support the Net is because it is a foundational part of how we have our democracy,” said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Benkler was one of several prominent American academics who spoke up during the eG8 Summit and in an impromptu press conference held at the event. We spoke further in this interview:
Benkler noted during our discussion:
… people can actually, with the things they own, capture the world and do something that is at the very core of the most advanced economies. Preserving that framework, preserving a framework that is open, free-flowing, flexible, adaptive to change and inviting so that one person’s sacrifice in Sidi Bouzid can then be translated throughout the Arab world into a moment of mobilization. That’s new. That’s what is critical.”
What’s at stake today has been what’s at stake for more than 15 years, said Benkler: The possibility that a coalition of forces who are afraid of the internet will shut it down.”There is still a very powerful counter argument, one that says both for innovation and for freedom, we need an open Net,” he said.
Dyson on technology enabling transparency
“You don’t need to be ‘from the Internet’ to believe in liberty or free speech,” said Esther Dyson, speaking in an interview at the eG8. You also don’t need to be a policy wonk or a geek to see how building tools that tap into the power of the Internet’s distributed platform are integral to helping a global transparency movement.
“Even when you have a revolution, what makes the revolution work is what changes in people’s minds, and that’s what’s going on here,” said Dyson. “The world is changing. People in government are not special. They should be as transparent as everybody else. People deserve privacy. Officials, governments, institutions, they all should be transparent. That’s new thinking, and it was being heard.”
Startups and technology companies are “providing tools to make the data meaningful,” said Dyson. “They’re providing tools for people to share the information. They’re providing the communication tools, again, that allow from everything from Wikileaks to people communicating with reporters. Tools like your phone, connected to the Internet, so that you can record interviews not just with me but with all of the other people you talk to, upload them, people can share them, people can comment on them. That’s all technology.”
Crawford speaks to an open Internet
“Access to the Internet is fundamental,” said Susan Crawford, an American law professor and former White House official. “These are the most important policies that government should be embracing. We want to make sure that other voices are heard.”
One existential challenge for the Internet of 2011 is that the technology platforms that helped to catalyze the Arab Spring are owned by private companies. As governments everywhere struggle to understand and respond to the rapidly emerging role of new media, the young leaders of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms will have their courage, convictions and ethics tested again and again to change the terms of service.
If an open Internet is the basis for democracy flourishing around the world, billions of people will be counting upon them to be up to the challenge.
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a column on the G8’s Internet statement that ran at CBS News’ “What’s Trending?” earlier this week.